24 May 2015

Documentaries on the Edge

From Standing Room Only, 1:33 pm on 24 May 2015

The Day that Changed My Life directed by Christopher Dudman

Each year the Documentary Edge Festival receives hundreds of submissions from around the world, which are then whittled down to mere fifty or so: a rather compact number that also needs to cover a broad range of topics and themes in order to appeal to a wide audience.

But while submissions for festivals come in thick and fast, for Director of the festival, Dan Shannan, having access to technology and a camera isn’t enough to make a film worthy of being selected: “There’s no doubt that access to technology these days allows film makers, and people in general to tell their stories, but in order to make a film that reaches a film festival, first and foremost you must have a good story and you need to be able to tell that story. So just because you have access to a camera and a recording device doesn’t mean that you are going to make a good film.”   

Sweet Mickey for President screenshot
Sweet Mickey for President screenshot.

In this year’s programme you can expect the unexpected and the stories are both riveting and compelling; from Sweet Mickey for President which follows musician Pras Michele as he fights for change by launching a campaign to back a cross-dressing pop star to run for President in Haiti; to the perspectives of children growing up in same-sex families in ‘Gayby Baby’, life in the surrounds of a garbage dump is explored in ‘Something Better to Come’; in ‘See no Evil’ celebrity apes have been put to pasture and their unimaginable reality unfolds when they are no longer fit for either science or stardom; in ‘Tomorrow We Disappear’ a colony of performers in New Delhi are about to become dislocated from their home— forced out by modernity, and a concrete sky scraper due to replace the slum in which they have lived and formed a sense of community and belonging, and closer to home The Day that Changed My Life explores emotions and experiences of individuals who experienced the crisis and trauma of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

These are stories that force us to question what we value and why, and allow us for a brief moment to stand in someone else’s shoes, seeing through fresh eyes.

Shannan believes that documentaries have an important place in our society and a ‘good’ documentary should be no different to any other kind of film and should engage the viewer, inform, enlighten, entertain, and most importantly, stay with you.  

“With the documentary genre you do have a wide range of types of films and topics; some are light some are serious, and some are both,” he says.

So is there a growing audience for documentaries?

According to Shannan, Hot Docs—the largest documentary festival in North America (Toronto)—had a 200,000 strong audience attend its festival this year, with people queuing up to see films and taking time out from their busy schedules.  He would like to see this kind of culture happening in New Zealand, and again, a greater appreciation and support for the arts which would also enable New Zealand documentary makers to do what they do best—tell great stories.  

But there are obstacles that impede New Zealand documentary makers from even beginning a project. Shannan finds it disconcerting that New Zealand is devoid of a public broadcaster dedicated to showing documentaries, and previously allocated slots that would have been home to quality content, have now been reallocated to reality television.

“The line is too blurred in my view. In the television landscape at the moment there are hardly any documentary slots for one-off [long-form]  documentaries …reality television in a way, took over.  It’s cheaper to produce, easier to make and broadcasters feel that that’s what the audiences want.”

He says it is appalling that there is no avenue for high quality content in New Zealand, and perhaps the impact falls well into the laps of our young Kiwis: “Children are being raised in this country  not knowing what quality film or documentary is [because] they don’t have access to it…we want to see a change.”

Documentary Edge is a not-for-profit organisation that also runs workshops throughout the year and their core activity is to find and nurture emerging talent in New Zealand through running Master classes, seminars, and providing documentary makers with an opportunity to pitch their stories to a panel of funders.